So you're wondering if rice is gluten-free? Well, it is! But it is also a highly-processed food. And while in its original state the grain contains no gluten, certain preparations and products do contain gluten and/or wheat products. Rice can also contain high levels of arsenic due to agricultural environmental factors. So here is the lowdown on gluten and rice, how to avoid as much arsenic as possible, and seasoning tips direct from a chef!
Does Rice Have Gluten?
Rice in its purest form - not milled or refined in any way - is truly one of the most ancient grains we consume in modern times. And all varieties are - at least as nature intended - free from gluten. A ubiquitous source of nutrition for thousands of years, early references to rice farming in Asia date as far back as 5000 BCE.
And rice farming practices haven't evolved drastically from then until now. Rice seeds are cultivated in submerged fields, and for that reason require significant irrigation AKA water. Not so sustainable, to say the least, but again, gluten-free. The grains are drained and dried after harvest which provides for long shelf life.
The Processing Problem + Risks
It is in this post-harvest processing that rice can come into contact with wheat products and lose its gluten-free status. Especially in developed countries, food producers often refine and package different grains with the same equipment. This cross-contact spells trouble for celiac patients, for whom the tiniest bit of gluten protein can cause intestinal distress. For non-celiac gluten avoiders, residual amounts of gluten or wheat aren't usually as detrimental as say that entire plate of classic pasta all vodka.
Reading Rice Product Labels
To guarantee you're eating rice that is still gluten-free after packaging, look for any allergy warnings on the label. In the United States and many European countries, labeling laws require food manufacturers to disclose any possible exposure of a product to one of the eight major allergens. Gluten included.
This warning is directly below the ingredient list and will read something to the effect of processed in a facility that also processes wheat and/or gluten. If no such warning is on the label, no risk should exist. Occasionally manufacturers will recall items with packaging that failed to disclose an allergen exposure, but thankfully this occurs infrequently. And often involves bakery and snack items with longer ingredient lists. Not single ingredient staples like rice.
If scanning labels at the grocery store is not your favorite pastime, stick with rice in its pure form and avoid boxed rice with added seasonings. Many of the seasoning packets inside contain wheat and dextrose (sugar derived from wheat). I didn't find a single warning among the multiple bags of rice I sourced for this article. A good sign.
Understanding the basic anatomy of a grain of rice is useful for making the best choices for your health and gluten-free cooking pursuits. Certain types of rice are more nutrient-dense than their friends. But refined rice varieties release more starch during cooking which can be a culinary advantage. And all of this depends on - you guessed it - the processing.
Brown rice is the least processed form and is often labeled "whole grain rice" for that reason. The inedible husk is removed, but the bran and germ remain. Since the bran and germ are where the fiber and nutrients live, brown or whole grain rice gives you the most bang for your nutritional buck. Brown rice offers plenty of essential minerals like magnesium, potassium, and more fiber and protein than its white counterpart. But it also contains higher levels of arsenic, so proceed with caution and perhaps only eat it occasionally.
Refined white rice varieties are processed so only the endosperm remains. Which is basically pure carbohydrate that your body breaks down into simple sugar molecules. However unhealthy white rice may sound, refined grains release more starch during cooking, which is necessary for successful sushi rolls or mango sticky rice. It's why white rice varieties offer that satisfying texture and are the perfect vehicle for sauces. Delicious, certainly, but not the most nutritious grain on the block.
Starch + Grain Size
When cooking up your favorite gluten-free recipes, it can help to understand the different starches in rice and their relationship to grain size.
The Two Rice Starches
Amylose and amylopectin are the two types of starch molecules present in grains of rice. Amylose doesn't gelatinize (release sticky starches) during cooking. But amylopectin does. Longer varieties typically contain higher ratios of amylose, so the rice grains cook up less sticky and separate. Short and medium-grain varieties contain more amylopectin, which leads to a more gluey texture and often more clumps of rice in the pot.
The Three Grains
- Short Grain. Aptly named, short-grain rice is wider than it is long. The starchy grain is perfect for culinary pursuits where the goal is a creamy texture as it contains mostly amylopectin. Perfect for gluing together a spicy tuna roll or in-season mangos.
- Medium Grain. Medium grain rice is a little longer than it is wide. And the grains steam up separately but with a pleasingly starchy bite. This is because medium-grain rice contains more or less an equal ratio of the two rice starches. The best of both worlds, and the most versatile type of rice to stock in your pantry.
- Long Grain. Rice length is all in the name, and the long variety is no exception. Tall and thin, long-grain rice is light and delicate yet sturdy. With a majority of amylose starch - the grains don't gelatinize much, if at all, during cooking. So it can be cooked to full doneness without becoming the least bit gluey.
Thousands of varieties of rice exist worldwide, you may find fifty choices alone at your favorite grocer. The tiny, more or less bland grain is surely a gluten-free culinary chameleon. Affordable, simple to prepare, and satisfying, especially when entering the brave new world of a diet without satisfying wheat. This list is not all-inclusive but includes popular types that are more or less easy to find.
Short to Medium Grain
- Arborio. This rice's claim to fame is the creamy, sinful risottos of Italian origin. The short-grain, starchy, chewy rice is named after a region in Italy and also makes a great rice pudding.
- Sticky, Sweet, or Glutinous. The most polished, starchiest, stickiest rice in the world! Perfect for rolling up in-season fruit with a sweet coconut sauce or dipping in authentic Thai curries. Contrary to the name "glutinous", sticky or sweet rice is gluten-free. This moniker of sticky rice can mean different varieties in different parts of the world. For authentic sweet rice look for Thai brands. Glutinous rice is also found in longer grains, but short or medium is more common.
- Sushi. The words "sushi rice" more or less describe how short-grain, white rice is prepared for traditional sushi dishes. Many brands and varieties of short-grain white rice work for sushi preparations, and some brands label short-grain rice as "sushi". Sushi meshi is the Japanese term for rice that is cooked and then immediately mixed with a dressing of vinegar, sugar, and salt. Sushi can be a wonderful meal for a gluten-free diet, as fresh fish is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids.
Medium to Long Grain
- Basmati. This rice is fragrant and nutty and called for in many Eastern recipes. Basmati rice is sold as white or whole-grain (brown) and is a staple in Japanese, Chinese and Indian cuisines.
- Brown Rice. As detailed above, brown rice is a blanket term for any variety of whole grain rice where the germ and bran are left intact during processing. Less processed than white rice varieties, brown rice provides more nutrients, fiber, texture, and a slightly nutty flavor.
- Jasmine. This aromatic rice hails from Thailand and is the perfect grain for serving with a variety of curry dishes or making Spanish yellow (saffron) rice. Jasmine rice is sold in both white and brown varieties.
- Forbidden, Black or Purple Rice. A whole-grain, unrefined, deeply colored rice with a low glycemic index and high level of antioxidants. High in fiber and a deep black color that turns purple when cooked, forbidden rice is available in several varieties ranging from sticky to a less starchy, long grain. Be sure to read the labels of any forbidden rice you come across to assess how best to use and cook it.
- Red Rice. An heirloom variety much like forbidden rice, red rice is imported from Thailand. Less refined than conventional white rice, red rice is rich in minerals and nutty. The sturdy texture of red rice holds up to rich meat dishes and makes for a great pilaf.
- Wild Rice. Not technically rice! But homegrown in North America. Wild rice is the grain of a thin, willowing plant that grows several feet tall at the edge of shallow lakes and streams. It is loaded with magnesium and fiber, and the long, thin, dark grains will split once cooked. High in protein, wild rice is earthy and a great substitute for any long or medium-grain variety in gluten-free recipes. Especially since the arsenic risk is much lower than actual rice.
Commercial parboiled rice is soaked, steamed, and dried before the husk is removed. Slightly more nutritive than standard white rice, it will also cook up faster at home. Converted rice and "precooked" are also labels for parboiled, and all should be free from gluten.
You may see recipes for how to make "parboiled" rice. But there is no way to replicate the commercial process in a home kitchen. Unless you were to harvest the grains yourself!
Parboiled is also a classical cooking term that means to partially pre-cook an ingredient (obviously where the commercial process name originated). To do this at home, you simply boil any rice variety until it is almost tender. Pre-cooked rice is needed for casseroles and similar recipes where the rice needs a longer cooking time than the other ingredients.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical that is found in both soil and groundwater. Trouble, when we know that rice is cultivated in submerged ponds. Due to this double-whammy of a growing environment, the developing seeds are exposed to higher levels of arsenic than other commercially-farmed grains.
Pesticides containing the toxin are partly to blame for the current levels in our food. And while arsenic-containing chemicals are now banned, the damage is done. Both inorganic and organic arsenic is present in much of American soil, with inorganic proving more toxic to human health. Especially when it comes to infants and children whose brains are still developing.
Chronic, toxic arsenic exposure is most likely to occur with drinking and cooking water than in the actual consumption of rice itself. But when you factor in that a gluten-free diet often contains ample amounts of rice and rice products, the arsenic can add up fast. Even if you rarely consume rice in its recognizable form, many gluten-free foods such as snacks, pizzas, and bakery items rely on rice flours and sweeteners in an effort to avoid gluten in its many sinister forms.
Avoiding + Reducing Exposure
The first method to reduce arsenic exposure when eating rice is to choose white rice over brown, and wild rice if you can find it. White rice may be less nutrient-dense than whole grain. But it's the bran left on brown rice where most of the arsenic lives. If you prefer brown rice (or don't want to throw away that bag you just bought before reading this), you can reduce the arsenic in rice during cooking.
A Consumer Reports study found white basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. contained half of the inorganic-arsenic amount of most other types of rice. Organic rice will contain lower overall levels of toxins but is subject to the same levels of soil-based arsenic as conventional. Since the source of arsenic in rice is in the ground, not pesticides.
How to Boil Rice to Reduce Arsenic
When boiled in large amounts of water - at least two quarts of water for every cup of rice - you can reduce the arsenic level by up to 60%. The water will leach out a decent amount of the arsenic which you then strain away before eating. This technique renders your rice cooker or Instant Pot useless where rice is concerned. But hey, it's potentially a small price to pay to avoid a known carcinogen.
Reducing Infant Exposure
Where children are concerned, avoiding rice cereal for infants is widely recommended by private practice pediatricians and dieticians. Truly, rice cereal is prone to recalls, and void of any worthwhile nutritional value. Infants just beginning their solid food journey gain much more from freshly cooked, puréed (blended) vegetables and mashed, ripe fruits like banana and avocado. Feeding young babies a rainbow of fresh produce will do much more for their developing bodies, brains, and proverbial palates than bland rice cereal.
Cooking or steaming rice is a basic kitchen venture. But without the proper ratios of water to rice or a nice steady heat, rice can go from lovely to mush or scalded in a hot minute. With so many varieties lining market shelves, it's truly best to do the obvious and start by following the instructions on the package.
Rice is versatile and can be prepared and seasoned in a plethora of ways. But here are a few professional tips and techniques for how to boil or steam rice.
Rinsing rice sloughs off excess starch that is clinging to the outside of white, or refined varieties. The starchy coating on the grains will gelatinize and bind to each other in the pot, preventing a fluffy finish. You can rinse rice by pouring water through it in a colander and gently shaking it until the water runs clear. Or fully submerge your rice in a large bowl of water for a few minutes. Then strain the water away. Since whole grain rice is contained in the bran, the same starchy coating is not a problem. So a quick rinse, at the most, is all you need.
White rice can sadly be as bland as it gets. And the best way to infuse this perilously tasteless grain is to season it at the start of cooking. At a minimum, add one or two healthy pinches of salt to the cooking water before adding the rice. The salt will dissolve in the water, which the rice then absorbs. Any herbs added at the beginning of cooking will also infuse the rice with a wonderful aromatic flavor. A garnish of fresh herbs and a little butter never hurt either. Voila! Not so tasteless rice, coming right up!
Ditch the Water
Cooking rice in stock or broth is a professional technique that gives a boring white grain a boost. Any brand of your favorite vegetable, chicken, or beef stock will add nutrients and nuance to any type of rice. The collagen from bone broth can be a boon for celiac patients on a gut-healing mission. To significantly pump up the immune-boosting nature of rice, use an artisan store-bought or homemade bone broth. I like the Bare Bones, Bonafide, and Kettle & Fire brands.
Be aware that many store brands of stock come loaded with sodium. I recommend looking for "no salt added" stock. Otherwise, go easy on the salt you add or leave it out entirely.
Rice Cooking Ratios
Different varieties of rice need different amounts of water to cook to that perfect tender, chewy bite. It is always best to measure both the rice and the water before cooking. The longer and less refined the rice you're cooking, the more water you will need for every cup of rice.
And don't hesitate to add a little more water if your stovetop pot is going dry before the rice is tender. Just make it quick. Or you can allow too much steam to escape from the pot which compromises the effort of adding more water.
Here are professional ratios for cooking rice on the stovetop (bring rice and water to a boil, simmer until tender). All ratios are by volume measurement.
- Brown Rice: 2.5 to 1 = 2½ cups of water for every 1 cup of rice
- Black/Forbidden/Red/Jasmine/Basmati Rice: 1.75 to 1 = 1¾ cups of water for every 1 cup of rice
- Parboiled/Converted: 2 to 1 = 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of rice
- Medium to Long Grain Enriched White Rice: 2 to 1, 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of rice
- Wild Rice: 4 to 1, 4 cups of water for every 1 cup of rice
For a rice cooker or Instant Pot, you typically need less water as the lids seal tighter preventing moisture loss. Coating the inside with oil or butter can help prevent more glutinous varieties from sticking.
Frequently Asked Questions
Gluten-containing foods will be any wheat, grain, or food products that contain any of the two types of gluten protein: gliadin and glutenin. Wheat products are the most ubiquitous gluten-containing foods. Rye, barley, and seitan all also contain gluten. And so do all conventional baking flours such as all-purpose, whole wheat, bread, pastry, and semolina. Most bread, pasta, and bakery items sold contain gluten in one form or another. Mother Nature's gluten-free foods include all fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, eggs, pure dairy products without additives, rice, and certain ancient grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and millet.
Technically, the name-brand cereal is not gluten-free since it contains malt flavor, which is derived from wheat. So original Rice Krispies are not appropriate for celiac patients on a gluten-free diet. However, many other cereal brands sell certified gluten-free crisped rice cereal. To ensure a gluten-free box, look for a third-party gluten-free certification label on the package.
A gluten-free diet is not a proven method for weight loss. For people suffering from celiac disease, eliminating gluten heals intestinal inflammation and related symptoms. But not all celiac patients lose weight in doing so. A gluten-free diet can be a nutrient-dense approach to eating full of whole grains, lean protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. But removing gluten alone is not a golden ticket for managing weight.
A healthy adult can enjoy rice in moderate amounts whether eating a gluten-free or wheat-inclusive diet. Our bodies can naturally eliminate smaller amounts of arsenic consumed through food. But the bottom line is that like with any diet, a gluten-free one should include a rainbow of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains.
Rice, surely. But also other gluten-free grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and sorghum. Like these vegetarian portobello mushroom "burgers" stuffed with a sweet and savory dried fruit-laced quinoa. Gluten-free, yes. But more importantly delicious and nutritious. Shameless plug!
If you are new to a gluten-free diet... welcome to a whole new world of less inflammation! Here are a couple of simple, delicious recipes to get you started. Including my family's favorite way to simmer up New Orleans-Style red beans and rice. Here's where you can peruse all of the gluten-free recipes on Edible Times.
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I am a private chef and culinary consultant with a basic formal education in nutrition and food safety. I am not a certified nutritionist or dietitian, and none of the information here is intended as medical advice. If you are overweight, hypertensive, or suffer from chronic disease and seeking to improve your health, consult your doctor first. If your doctor doesn't recommend a change of diet, find a new doctor.